To fully appreciate my stance on this much-debated issue, you need to know with how heavy a heart it's taken. I've been a Cowboy fan since I could tell the difference between a football and a frisbee. And my loyalties to "America's Team" are due largely to the man whose career Aikman's has so uniquely paralleled, up to and including his current physical crisis: Roger Staubach.
In 1980 Roger Staubach was no different from Spiderman or Han Solo in the heroic pantheon of my 11-year-old consciousness. Spidey beat up the Green Goblin, Han commanded the Millennium Falcon, and Roger the Dodger hurled touchdown passes for the mighty Cowboys. Then on an otherwise drab afternoon shortly after the '79 NFL season had come to pass, I learned about the word "concussion."
Mortality is a helluva thing when it comes to your heroes. My dad explained-- as best he could-- that Staubach had announced his retirement because of a series (pattern?) of head injuries that threatened far more than his football career. It didn't stop my tears, but it forced me to see my quarterback hero for the first time as a human being. One with a loving family and a future beyond Texas Stadium. I also had the first profound sports-related thought of my young life, that there would never again be a player like Roger Staubach. Then along came Troy Aikman.
We Cowboy fans take a lot of grief, much of it deserved. There is a swagger to all things Cowboy that tends to rub the legions of Cowboy haters in an especially sensitive area. And considering the number of legal transgressions by Cowboy players-- from Bob Hayes to Michael Irvin-- the vitriol is accepted by fans like myself as part of the package. But even ignoring the five Super Bowl wins, find me a franchise that, merely a decade apart, fielded a pair of quarterbacks as special as Staubach and Aikman.
Which brings me to the lump in my throat as I argue for Aikman's retirement. It's simply an issue of risk versus reward. What might the rewards be should Aikman keep playing? As clearly exemplified in the whipping they took in their season-opening loss to Philadelphia, the Dallas Cowboys are on their way down (way down), not up. Furthermore, with an aging offensive line, they appear to be a team for whom a quarterback will have to be mobile to stay alive, let alone move the team down the field. Even in his best years mobility wasn't one of Aikman's strengths.
Does Aikman need to cement his standing in NFL history? Please. Start with three Super Bowl victories, a club whose membership counts three (here's to Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana). He has broken every Cowboy passing record (standards originally established by Staubach). And despite the series of concussions, Aikman has remained a remarkably durable quarterback. Few men lead their team in passing, as Aikman has, for 11 consecutive years.
A Hall of Famer? You decide.
As for the risks, you don't need a medical degree to understand when the injured part of one's body is the brain, it's time to take pause. That nasty word I learned 20 years ago has been in the headlines of late, as his own concussions led to San Francisco 49er Steve Young's retirement earlier this year. Hockey superstar Eric Lindros is on his way to a liquid diet after a series of on-ice collisions benched the Philadelphia Flyer center. However horrific a knee or shoulder injury might seem, imagine the pain when it's between your ears? Every day. When the act of thinking itself is hindered.
My old hero Roger Staubach now runs an extraordinarily successful real estate firm headquartered in Dallas. Closing in on 60, he's as sharp as ever, and still looks like he could thread the needle on a slant pattern. Aikman needs to recognize his career's parallel to Staubach's . . . and to take it one more step. He's newly married, articulate, good in front of the camera. Who knows what adventures remain?
This gallant Cowboy needs to ride off into the sunset, before he finds his horse replaced with a gurney.(Frank Murtaugh is the managing editor of Memphis Magazine. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)